Saturday, August 26, 2017

Five Reasons Hillbilly Elegy Became A Runaway Bestseller

One measure of how widespread a book is being read is to note how many folks have rated it on Goodreads.com or have left reviews. By this measure, it's quite apparent that J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy has been widely consumed, since more than 100,000 people have given it a rating, and more than 13,000 have left a written record of what the book was about or meant to them.

According to the inside cover flap, "Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of poor, white Americans. The disintegration of this group, a process that has been slowly occurring now for over forty years, has been reported with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck."

The drumbeat of praise for the book includes this endorsement from The Economist: "You will not read a more important book this year." To which I would say, "Poppycock."

J.D. Vance is a 31-year old who grew up in a supremely dysfunctional home in Southern Ohio. I picked it up to read because the narrator's life path in some ways is an echo of my father's story, whose roots are Eastern Kentucky, who grew up in Hamilton, Ohio (a few miles from Vance's beleaguered Middletown) and escaped by way of the military and college on the G.I. bill. (My father was army, and went to college at Hiram in Ohio, Vance joined the marines and found himself at Yale.) My father's trek along that path diverged at a few key points, however, foremost of these being that his story took place a half century earlier and that though his parents, my Grandpa and Grandma Newman, were dirt poor, they remained married to one another for fifty years.

As I near the end of Vance's memoir I can't say I agree that it's a "must read." It's been an interesting read for me personally because I do know the social terrain from which this story emerges. Here are five reasons I believe the book caught on and has been widely circulated.

Curiosity
Anton Chekhov wrote a short story once about a couple people who stopped to watch something -- it may have been the behavior of a couple birds on a rooftop -- and a crowd begins to form in the street to see what they are staring at. When the birds fly away and the two people leave there is a crowd still standing there looking up and wondering what everyone else is looking at. Can this be one reason people read books that are on bestseller lists? I don't doubt it.

I think, too, that there is a curiosity about the lives of people who are very different from our own. This is why shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous gain a following. Or stories about Mafia families.

Authority
He writes with authority because it's his story. He essentially lays down in lines the experiences of his life.

Transparency
There have always been kiss-and-tell books on bestseller lists, but social media has elevated voyeuristic reading to a new level. This book operates on the assumption that by zeroing in on one messed up story we can draw conclusions about all kinds of people in this particular social set, the transplanted "hillbillies" of Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee who migrated a generation or two earlier to the Rust Belt, a region economically challenged now with few ways out for many.

Apparent Authenticity  
The story rings true because he just tells it like it was. He is exceedingly candid, possibly urged on my the publisher who sensed that there are profits to be mined from stories like this. I think here of Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again, which was sequel to Look Homeward, Angel. Though Wolfe recast his rural life experiences as a fictional narrative, there were too many places where real life people had been reflected unfavorably, and recognizably, in the story. I can't help but wonder how Vance's friends, family and neighbors reacted to this mucky tale.

American Tragedy
The gap between haves and have nots has grown significantly over the past fifty years. Vance presents his story as a microcosm of the broader issues facing this population demographic.

* * * *
To his credit, the author writes in the intro that this is not really a cultural study. That is, he is not using any data or doing any real research on the causes or even the pervasiveness of his experience. Though the subtitle implies that this is the case, he flat-out says one should read Charles Murray and others for that kind of information.

Though 62% of Amazon.com readers gave this book a 5-star rating, there are plenty of other reviewers with harsher assessments of the book. Here are just a few of the many criticisms you can find with little effort:

-- Salon's review is titled Hillbilly sellout: The politics of J. D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” are already being used to gut the working poor.

--New Republic's take is titled J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America. Sarah Jones' pieces carries this explanatory subtitle: The bestselling author of "Hillbilly Elegy" has emerged as the liberal media's favorite white trash–splainer. But he is offering all the wrong lessons.

--The title of this review at BookRiot says a lot: LIES, DAMN LIES, AND HILLBILLY ELEGY.

This 1-star review on Amazon has an interesting title: Do not believe 5-star reviews!!! The writer, identified as booklover, summed up his or her commentary with this fairly accurate statement: "I was really hoping for an expansive discussion of a subgroup of America's poor & instead got a simple, largely mundane autobiography of a boy whose mother was an oft-married druggie & whose colorful (coarse, cursing, but nurturing) grandmother stepped up to rear him."

* * * *

For my Dad the G.I. Bill...
My take on Hillbilly Elegy is that it's not an essential read, but you may find it interesting, with notes that resonate in aspects of your own experience. I myself recognize features of the story because my roots are Eastern Kentucky and the characters in the book in various ways reflect some characters in my extended family. My grandfather was a moonshiner who fled to West Virginia when the Feds came to bust the stills in the hollers. My grandmother was seven months pregnant with my father when Grandpa began a six month stint as a coal miner. He was illiterate when they married, but Grandma had been a teacher in the one-room schoolhouse downriver from the mountain Grandpa lived on as oldest of eleven kids. When my father was four months old the family up and left that West Virginia mining town and headed to the big city. Grandma had taught her man how to read and write at this point so he was able to fill out a job application and get a job.

...was a stepping stone to this.
They had six kids in a three room house with no indoor plumbing. Though valedictorian when my father graduated high school, he joined the army the next day, which enabled him to attend college on the G.I. bill after WWII, which enabled him to get a job as a chemist and buy a house in the 'burbs.

Because my father's family was somewhat healthier (Grandparents remained married 50 years, Grandpa went to work every day, I do not recall a cuss word uttered once in their teetotaling home) if he wrote a memoir of his escape from the challenges presented by Appalachian culture-crush it would not become a best-seller. Yes, there was a measure of drama, and there are tragic notes that can be struck, but he was a more private man, and more considerate.

As Grandma would say, "Now I hain't braggin, ya hear." But I am grateful for the ethics that were passed on to us, despite the tough circumstances from which they emerged.

* * * *

Much more can be said, but you can find the pro and con reviews at Amazon. The gap between haves and have nots is growing and is going to remain a major concern in cultural dynamics for years to come, but here and abroad. This book doesn't provide any answers, but it does offer a snapshot of at least some of the causes.

Meantime... life goes on.

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